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Ancient greek 9th-6th centuries BC.

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Ancient Greek refers to the second stage in the history of the Greek language, comprising two ancient periods of Greek history: Archaic (9th-6th centuries BC) and Classical (5th-4th centuries BC) Greece. The Ancient era of Greek history normally includes also the Hellenistic (post-Classic) age, however that period formally composes its own stage in the Greek Language known as Koine Greek.

Ancient Greek.
Spoken in: eastern Mediterranean
Language extinction: developed into Koiné Greek by the 4th century BC
Language family: Indo-European
 Language family
  Ancient Greek
Language codes
ISO 639-1: none
ISO 639-2: grc
ISO 639-3: grc

It is the language of the Homeric poems, including the Iliad and the Odyssey, of the great works of literature and philosophy of the Athenian Golden Age, which came to be the foundations of our modern mathematics and sciences.

For information on the Hellenic language family prior to the creation of the Greek alphabet, see articles Mycenaean Greek and Proto-Greek.

Dialects of Ancient Greek.

The origins, early forms, and early development of the Hellenic language family are not well understood, owing to the lack of contemporaneous evidence. There are several theories about what Hellenic dialect groups may have existed between the divergence of early Greek-like speech from the common Indo-European language (not later than 2000 BC), and about 1200 BC. They have the same general outline but differ in some of the detail. The only attested dialect from this period is Mycenaean, but its relationship to the historical dialects and the historical circumstances of the times imply that the overall groups already existed in some form.

The major dialect groups of the Ancient Greek period can be assumed to have developed not later than 1100 BC, at the time of the Dorian invasion(s), and they first appear precisely documented in alphabetic writing beginning in the 8th Century BC. The invasion would not be "Dorian" unless the invaders had some cultural relationship to the historical Dorians; moreover, the invasion is known to have displaced population to the later Attic-Ionic regions, who regarded themselves as descendants of the population displaced by or contending with the Dorians.

The ancient Greeks themselves considered there to be three major divisions of the Greek people, into Dorians, Aeolians, and Ionians (including Athenians), each with their own defining and distinctive dialects. Allowing for their oversight of Arcadian, an obscure mountain dialect, and Cyprian, far from the center of Greek scholarship, this division of people and language is quite similar to the results of modern archaeological-linguistic investigation.

One standard formulation for the dialects of Ancient Greek is:

Ancient Greek.
Distribution of Ancient Greek dialects, ca. 400 BC.
  • West Group
    • Northwest Greek.
    • Doric.
  • Aeolic Group
    • Aegean/Asiatic Aeolic.
    • Thessalian.
    • Boeotian.
  • Ionic-Attic Group
    • Attica.
    • Euboea and colonies in Italy.
    • Cyclades.
    • Asiatic Ionia.
  • Arcado-Cypriot
    • Arcadian.
    • Cypriot.
    • Pamphylian.

West and non-west Greek is the strongest and earliest division, with the non-west in subsets of Ionic-Attic (or Attic-Ionic) and Aeolic vs. Arcado-Cyprian, or Aeolic and Arcado-Cyprian vs. Ionic-Attic. Often non-west is called East Greek.

The Arcado-Cyprian group is descended more closely from the Mycenaean Greek of the Bronze Age.

Boeotian had come under a strong Northwest Greek influence, and can in some respects be considered a transitional dialect. Thessalian likewise had come under Northwest Greek influence, though to a lesser degree.

Pamphylian, spoken in a small area on the south-western coast of Asia Minor and little preserved in inscriptions, may be either a fifth major dialect group, or Mycenaean Greek overlaid by Doric, with a non-Greek native influence.

The highly controversial native language of Ancient Macedonia may have been a non-Greek Indo-European language, or a highly-divergent branch of Northwest Greek, or an additional major dialect group of Ancient Greek.

Most of the dialect sub-groups listed above had further subdivisions, generally equivalent to a city-state and its surrounding territory, or an island. Doric notably had several intermediate divisions as well, into Island Doric (including Cretan Doric), Southern Peloponnesus Doric (including Laconian, the dialect of Sparta), and Northern Peloponnesus Doric (including Corinthian). The famous Lesbian dialect was a member of the Aegean/Asiatic Aeolic sub-group. All the groups were represented by colonies beyond Greece proper as well, and these colonies generally developed local characteristics, often under the influence of settlers or neighbors speaking different Greek dialects.

The dialects outside the Ionic group are known mainly from inscriptions, notable exceptions being fragments of the works of the poetess from the island of Lesbos, Sappho, and the poems of the Spartan poet, Pindar.

After the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, a new international dialect known as Koine or Common Greek developed, largely based on Attic Greek, but with influence from other dialects. This dialect slowly replaced most of the older dialects, although Doric dialect has survived to the present in the form of the Tsakonian and Southern Italian dialects of Modern Greek. Doric has also passed down its aorist terminations into most verbs of Demotic Greek. By about the 6th century AD, the Koine had slowly metamorphosized into Medieval Greek.

Sound changes of Ancient Greek.

These sound changes since Proto-Greek affect most or all Ancient Greek dialects:

  • Syllabic /r/, /l/ become /ro/ and /lo/ in Mycenean Greek and Aeolic Greek; otherwise /ra/ and /la/, but /ar/ and /al/ before resonants and analogously. Example: Indo-European *str-to- becomes Aeolic strotos, otherwise stratus, "army".
  • Loss of /h/ from original /s/ (except initially) and of /j/. Examples: treis "three" from *treyes; Doric nikaas "having conquered" for nikahas from nikasas.
  • Loss of /w/ in many dialects (later than loss of /h/ and /j/). Example: etos "year" from wetos.
  • Loss of labiovelars, which were converted (mostly) into labials, sometimes into dentals or velars.
  • Contraction of adjacent vowels resulting from loss of /h/ and /j/ (and, to a lesser extent, from loss of /w/); more in Attic Greek than elsewhere.
  • Rise of a distinctive circumflex accent, resulting from contraction and certain other changes.
  • Limitation of the accent to the last three syllables, with various further restrictions.
  • Loss of /n/ before /s/ (incompletely in Cretan Greek), with compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel.

Note that /w/ and /j/, when following a vowel and not preceding a vowel, combined early on with the vowel to form a diphthong and were thus not lost.

The loss of /h/ and /w/ after a consonant were often accompanied by compensatory lengthening of a preceding vowel. The loss of /j/ after a consonant was accompanied by a large number of complex changes, including diphthongization of a preceding vowel or palatalization or other change to a directly preceding consonant. Some examples:

  • /pj/, /bj/, /phj/ -> /pt/.
  • /lj/ -> /ll/.
  • /tj/, /thj/, /kj/, /khj/ -> /s/ when following a consonant; otherwise /ss/ or /tt/ (Attic).
  • /gj/, /dj/ -> /zd/.
  • /mj/, /nj/, /rj/ -> /j/ is transposed before consonant and forms a diphthong with the preceding vowel.
  • /wj/, /sj/ -> /j/, forming a diphthong with the preceding vowel.

The results of vowel contraction were complex with dialect to dialect. Such contractions occur in the inflection of a number of different noun and verb classes and are among the most difficult aspects of Ancient Greek grammar. They were particularly important in the large class of contracted verbs, denominative verbs formed from nouns and adjectives ending in a vowel. (In fact, the reflex of contracted verbs in Modern Greek-i.e., the set of verbs derived from Ancient Greek contracted verbs-represents one of the two main classes of verbs in that language.

Phonology of Ancient Greek.

The pronunciation of Post-Classic Greek changed considerably from Ancient Greek, although the orthography still reflects features of the older language (see W. Sidney Allen, Vox Graeca - a guide to the pronunciation of Classical Greek). For a detailed description on the phonology changes from Ancient to Hellenistic periods of the Greek language, see the article on Koine Greek.

The examples below are intended to represent Attic Greek in the 5th century BC. Although ancient pronunciation can never be reconstructed with certainty, Greek in particular is very well documented from this period, and there is little disagreement among linguists as to the general nature of the sounds that the letters represented.

Vowels in Ancient Greek.

Short vowels

  unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
Close /i/ /y/    
Mid /e/     /o/

Long vowels

  unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
Close /i?/ /y?/    
Close-mid /e?/     /o?/
Open-mid /??/     /??/

/o?/ probably raised to [u?] by the fourth century BC.


Plosive /p/ /b/ /t?/ /d?/ /k/ /g/  
Aspirated Plosive /p?/    /t??/    /k?/     
Nasal /m/ /n/ [?]  
Trill   [r?] /r/    
Fricative   /s/ [z]   /h/
Lateral approximant   /l/    

[z] was an allophone of /s/, used before voiced consonants; [?] was an allophone of /n/ used before velars, while [r?], written (?), was probably a voiceless allophone of /r/ used word initially.

Consonant classes

There are three main classes of consonants:

  • Stops. This include three subclasses: velars (/k/, /g/, /k?/), labials (/p/, /b/, /p?/), and dentals (/t/, /d/, /t?/).
  • Sonorants are /m/, /n/, /l/, /r/.
  • Fricatives are /s/ and /h/.

Consonant contractions

In verb conjugation, one consonant often comes up against the other. Various sandhi rules apply.


  • Most basic rule: When two sounds appear next to each other, the first assimilates in voicing and aspiration to the second.
  • This applies fully to stops. Fricatives assimilate only in voicing, sonorants do not assimilate.

Compensatory lengthening of Ancient Greek.

There are different schemes for compensatory lengthening, depending on where it happens. The differences are in whether.


The indicative of past tenses adds (conceptually, at least) a prefix /e-/. This was probably originally a separate word, meaning something like "then", added because tenses in PIE had primarily aspectual meaning. The augment is added to the indicative of the aorist, imperfect and pluperfect, but not to any of the other forms of the aorist (no other forms of the imperfect and pluperfect exist).

There are two kinds of augment in Greek, syllabic and quantitative. The syllabic augment is added to stems beginning with consonants, and simply prefixes e (stems beginning with r, however, add er). The quantitative augment is added to stems beginning with vowels, and involves lengthening the vowel:

  • a, a, e, e -> e.
  • i, i -> i.
  • o, o -> o.
  • u, u -> u.
  • ai -> ei.
  • ei -> ei or ei.
  • oi -> oi.
  • au -> eu or au.
  • eu -> eu or eu.
  • ou -> ou.

Some verbs augment irregularly; the most common variation is e -> ei. The irregularity can be explained diachronically by the loss of s between vowels.

Following Homer's practice, the augment is sometimes not made in poetry, especially epic poetry.

The augment sometimes substitutes for reduplication; see below.


Almost all forms of the perfect, pluperfect and future perfect reduplicate the initial syllable of the verb stem. (Note that a few irregular forms of perfect do not reduplicate, whereas a handful of irregular aorists reduplicate.) There are three types of reduplication:

  • Syllabic reduplication: Most verbs beginning with a single consonant, or a cluster of a stop with a sonorant, add a syllable consisting of the initial consonant followed by e. An aspirated consonant, however, reduplicates in its unaspirated equivalent: Grassmann's law.
  • Augment: Verbs beginning with a vowel, as well as those beginning with a cluster other than those indicated previously (and occasionally for a few other verbs) reduplicate in the same fashion as the augment. This remains in all forms of the perfect, not just the indicative.
  • Attic reduplication: Some verbs beginning with an a, e or o, followed by a sonorant (or occasionally d or g), reduplicate by adding a syllable consisting of the initial vowel and following consonant, and lengthening the following vowel. Hence er -> erer, an -> anen, ol -> olol, ed -> eded. This is not actually specific to Attic Greek, despite its name; but it was generalized in Attic. This originally involved reduplicating a cluster consisting of a laryngeal and sonorant; hence h3l -> h3leh3l -> olol with normal Greek development of laryngeals. (Forms with a stop were analogous.).

Irregular duplication can be understood diachronically. For example, lambano (root lab) has the perfect stem eilepha (not *lelepha) because it was originally slambano, with perfect seslepha, becoming eilepha through (semi-)regular change.

Reduplication is also visible in the present tense stems of certain verbs. These stems add a syllable consisting of the root's initial consonant followed by i. A nasal consonant appears after the reduplication in some verbs.

Morphology: Ancient Greek grammar.

Greek, like all of the older Indo-European languages, is highly inflected. It is highly archaic in its preservation of Proto-Indo-European forms. In Ancient Greek nouns (including proper nouns) have five cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative and vocative), three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), and three numbers (singular, dual and plural). Verbs have four moods (indicative, imperative, subjunctive and optative), three voices (active, middle and passive), as well as three persons (first, second and third) and various other forms. Verbs are conjugated across three aspects, the imperfective forms including present, future and imperfect tenses, perfective forms, restricted to the aorist, which in the indicative, and perfect forms, which include the present-perfect and pluperfect. There is a full complement of moods for each aspect, although there is no future subjunctive or imperative; in addition, infinitives and participles for all corresponding finite combinations of tense, aspect and voice, excluding the imperfect and pluperfect, are found.

Ancient Greek writing system: Greek orthography.

Ancient Greek was written in the Greek alphabet, with some variation among dialects. Early texts are written in boustrephedon style, but left-to-right became standard during the classic period. Modern editions of Ancient Greek texts are usually written with accents and breathing marks, interword spacing, modern punctuation, and sometimes mixed case, but these were all introduced later.

Example text of Ancient Greek.

Hóti mèn humeîs, ô ándres Athenaîoi, pepónthate hupò tôn emôn kategóron, ouk oîda: eg d' oûn kaì autòs hup' auton olígou emautoû epelathómen, hoúto pithanôs élegon. Kaítoi alethés ge hos épos eipeîn oudèn eirkasin.

How you, men of Athens, have been affected by my accusers, I do not know; but I, for my part, almost forgot my own identity, so persuasively did they talk; and yet there is hardly a word of truth in what they have said. Plato, Apology.

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